Alaska Native culture

Break-up Poem by Martha Demoski

Thank you to Martha Demoski for sharing her writing and poem on the Athabascan Woman blog. Martha Demoski (Koyukon Athabascan) is a retired teacher who is originally from Nulato. This poem also appeared in the TCC Council Newsletter. Here is here story and poem about spring break-up.

Nulato, Alaska. Photo by Martha Demoski
Nulato, Alaska. Photo by Martha Demoski

Nulato moved back to the new site to be above the flood plain level. It is a relief to be out of reach of the destruction that the river can cause. Although it is a relief, there are some people living in that area who go through tremendous stress. We want a good break up for them. The ice that drift downriver is softer than the huge chunks of the past. I remember hearing crushing, bumping noises from the ice as it was moving and breaking. Years ago, Nulato was a crowded little village and to send out the alert someone would shout in a loud voice…”Ice is moving!” And everyone would be out at the riverbank. People would become very busy moving items higher in their log cabins or to the side of the cemetery hill.

A view of the Yukon River by Nulato. Break-up will soon occur. Photo by Martha Demoski
A view of the Yukon River by Nulato. Break-up will soon occur. Photo by Martha Demoski

The worst flood I’ve been in was in the early 60’s. I remember moving up on the cemetery hill with all the other families. Tents were everywhere. It was fun to be around all the other children. There was hardly any privacy. We had to walk through thick brush, trudging through soft, wet ground to use the toilet. If you did not own rubber boots, your feet would be soaking wet and cold by the time you returned to the tent.

The Airforce provided c-rations. There’s only so much of it you can eat when you are so used to food caught locally. I remember feeling so miserable having eaten something that disagreed with me. People appreciated their help with food, water, blankets and other needs.

A hill overlooks the Yukon River at Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
A hill overlooks the Yukon River at Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

People sat on the side of the hill helplessly watching the ones who owned boats maneuver around big chunks of ice and in the current to rescue people’s belongings and sled dogs. Families didn’t have much in those days but whatever they had was important to save. My auntie cried out as she watched her log cabin begin shifting around on its foundation. It was a miracle that it did not float out to the river. Everything was floating, boards with little furry creatures clinging, caches, outhouses, and barrels, etc.

After the waters receded, there was a mess. Mud was shoveled off the floors and wiped off everything else. Furniture, clothes, bedding and anything that could be reasonably salvaged were cleaned and dried out for days. I never thought about the contamination. People had wood stoves, in comparison to now, most people use oil. So at least oil and gas did not seep into homes. The ground is always wet during the spring and it was made worst with all the silt.

Hopefully, this year there will be an easy break-up for all the villages along the Alaskan Rivers. I wrote this poem last year before break-up, never knowing what Galena was going to experience. They had so much devastation and loss. It changed many residents’ lives.

Break-up by Martha Demoski

Smoke
embraced me
wove into my clothing
as I
slipped into a jovial circle
on a solar ray

warmth of a campfire on my cheeks
flying sparks like merry souls
dance and settle
smoldering with anticipation
during the river watch

fish strips with golden oil slick
is nourishment for the conversation
buttered Sailor-boy pilot bread
tea steamed compatible words
vaporized with excitement

river of wonder…
break-up, water shoving ice
uprooted trees…and earth
in the current
enrapturing the moment

– Martha Demoski

A fish wheel sits in the frozen Yukon River by Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
A fish wheel sits in the frozen Yukon River by Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

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